Interview with Terri Giuliano Long: ‘I wrote the first draft of In Leah’s Wake for my grad school thesis’

Terri Giuliano Long is the bestselling author of the award-winning novel In Leah’s Wake. Books offer her a zest for life’s highs and comfort in its lows. She’s all-too-happy to share this love with others as a novelist and a writing teacher at Boston College.

Her life outside of books is devoted to her family. In her spare time, she enjoys walking, traveling to far-flung places, and meeting interesting people. True to her Italian-American heritage, she’s an enthusiastic cook and she loves fine wine and good food. In an alternate reality, she could have been very happy as an international food writer.

Terri loves meeting and connecting with people who share her passions.

You can visit her website at www.tglong.com or connect with her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/tglong and Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/tglongwrites.

About In Leah’s Wake

Protecting their children comes naturally for Zoe and Will Tyler—until their daughter Leah decides to actively destroy her own future.

Leah grew up in a privileged upper-middle class world. Her parents spared no expense for her happiness; she had all-but secured an Ivy League scholarship and a future as a star athlete. Then she met Todd.

Leah’s parents watch helplessly as their daughter falls into a world of drugs, sex, and wild parties. While Will attempts to control his daughter’s every move to prevent her from falling deeper into this dangerous new life, Zoe prefers to give Leah slack in the hope that she may learn from her mistakes. Their divided approach drives their daughter out of their home and a wedge into their marriage.

Twelve-year-old Justine observes Leah’s rebellion from the shadows of their fragmented family. She desperately seeks her big sister’s approval and will do whatever it takes to obtain it. Meanwhile she is left to question whether her parents love her and whether God even knows she exists.

What happens when love just isn’t enough? Who will pay the consequences of Leah’s vagrant lifestyle? Can this broken family survive the destruction left in Leah’s wake?

This mesmerizing debut novel tells the tale of a contemporary American family caught in the throes of adolescent rebellion – a heartbreaking, funny, ultimately redemptive quest for love, independence, connection and grace.

In Leah’s Wake is the 2011 BOOK BUNDLZ BOOK CLUB PICK  and recipient of the Coffee Time Reviewers Recommend (CTRR) Award. This award, as selected by reviewers, recognizes outstanding writing styles in all book types and genres.

Read the first chapter here.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Terri. Can you tell us what your latest book, In Leah’s Wake, is all about?

In Leah’s Wake tells the story of a family in collapse. Sixteen-year-old Leah, a high school soccer star, has led a perfect life. When she meets a sexy older guy, attracted to his independence, she begins to spread her wings. Drinking, ignoring curfew, dabbling in drugs—all this feels like freedom to her. Her terrified parents, afraid they’re losing their daughter, pull the reins tighter.

Unfortunately, her parents get it all wrong, pushing when they ought to be pulling, and communication breaks down. Soon there’s no turning back. Twelve-year-old Justine, caught between the parents she loves and the big sister she adores, finds herself in the fight of her life, trying desperately to pull her family together.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

LEAH TYLER

Leah is a strong young woman, beautiful, smart, a superstar in the community. As long as she lives up to their expectations, she’s accepted, even celebrated. As soon as she tries to take control of her own life, question the rules, spread her wings, she meets resistance. When she chooses her troublemaker boyfriend over a promising college soccer career, and heads down a path of drugs and self-destruction, she rips her once happy family apart.

JUSTINE TYLER

Justine is twelve, in that awkward stage, not really a child anymore and not quite a teen. Justine is intelligent, faithful, and kind, and she sees the best in people, sometimes to her own detriment. Deeply religious, she sees God as Father and protector – a belief that will be challenged by her family’s turmoil. Her best friend is Dog, the family’s aging pet Labrador. Although only twelve, Justine is left to be the rock as the rest of her family plunges into depression.

ZOE AND WILL TYLER

Zoe and Will are hardworking parents – too hardworking – who love and want the best for their children. Ambitious and strong, Will is willing do whatever it takes to help his children reach their full potential, even if it means alienating them in the process. He can’t sit back, watching his teenage daughter destroy her promising future. Zoe, a child therapist and motivational speaker, is a peacemaker who avoids confrontation, and thus easily falls into depression. Their divided approach to Leah’s rebellion drives a wedge into their marriage.

Rather than listen to their daughter, accept that she’s growing up, that her choices may differ from theirs, and guide her down the path that’s right for her, Zoe and Will try to take control. This is a classic problem between parents and teens. The minute we put our foot down, say no, they can’t do this or that, they tend to focus all their energy in that direction. Zoe and Will’s escalating attempts to control their daughter result in her pulling away. This is a difficult cycle to break.

JERRY JOHNSON

Jerry Johnson, the police officer, is the only non-family member with a voice in the novel. Jerry’s work as a police officer brings him into frequent contact with the dissolving Tyler family. Though flawed like all the characters, he takes his responsibility for others to heart. He’s the connecting force in this novel.

TODD CORBETT

Leah’s boyfriend, Todd, a former roadie in a rock band, is a modern day James Dean, a rebel without a cause. He’s been arrested for dealing drugs, so it’s easy to blame him for leading her astray; really, he’s a conduit. He makes her feel comfortable and safe and encourages her blossoming independence.

By the time Leah realizes that he wants to control her, too – albeit in a different way – it’s too late. If only she’d realized how deeply her family loves her, she might have avoided the dire consequences she suffers. That’s the central irony in the book – perhaps the irony in many relationships between parents and teens.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

Bob Sullivan, the owner of Sullivan Farms Ice Cream, and Dorothy Klein, the beautiful woman who designs the button bracelets Zoe buys for Leah and herself, are real people.

Every other character is completely imaginary. I did borrow gestures, habits, and physical characteristics from real people – the runaway arm belongs to my youngest daughter, KK; my husband is a darker physical stand-in for Will. Of course, borrowing sometimes results in unfortunate assumptions. I’m lucky – my family puts up with my thievery and ignores the conclusions readers draw.

Personality, motivation, and behavior of my characters I’m fully responsible for.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

I wrote the first draft of In Leah’s Wake for my grad school thesis. I wrote very quickly and had no idea where I was headed– in programs, organic writing is usually encouraged. In the revision process, I looked for and developed themes. In Leah’s Wake is character, rather than plot driven; tight plotting would have produced a different book. For all of us, I think it’s helpful to have clear goals. The intent of genre fiction is to entertain; plotting helps maintain action and pace. For literary fiction, the goal is to develop and understand character. With In Leah’s Wake, I hope I’ve done that. I’m not saying we can’t break rules –write character-driven genre novels or plot lit-fiction. There are conventions. If we flout rules, we should be prepared for the consequences, which may mean losing readers.

My novel-in-progress, Nowhere to Run, is a psychological thriller, so I’m approaching this one differently. I’ve mapped out a partial plot and I’m using the points as markers, while writing organically. While I recognize the benefits of plotting, sticking too closely to plot feels limiting. Allowing myself some degree of freedom opens my mind to new ideas and possibilities. It also makes the writing a messier, longer and more painstaking process. At least that’s been my experience. While I lean toward writing organically, I now do both.

Q: Your book is set in Cortland, Maine.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

Geographically, the town of Cortland is modeled after the town of Harvard, MA. In the fall, we used to go there to pick apples. Harvard is stunningly beautiful – with the rolling hills, the stone walls, the orchards. Sometimes, Dave and I would drive there and just ride around. This family is in tremendous pain; they’re struggling. That these fierce struggles might take place in this bucolic setting felt surprising, and that tension felt important to the book.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Judging from the stories I hear, the social and political climate in the imaginary town of Cortland reflects that in many middle- and upper-middle class towns across the U.S., and perhaps outside the U.S. I’ve talked with parents who’ve expressed frustrations similar to Zoe and Will’s. Culturally – not always or only by their parents – children feel pressure to live up to impossible expectations. When children step out of line, the parents and families often feel judged.

Community plays an important role in setting expectations and shaping and maintaining connections. The expectations, the constant demand to perform, can be overwhelming. In small towns, everyone knows everyone else, by sight if not by name. You can’t hide. If you or a family member is in trouble, everyone knows it. That claustrophobia and the constant feeling of condemnation, being watched, inform the inner lives of these characters and influence their behavior.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

Leah has skipped soccer practice and gone with Tood to the home of his friend, Hope. Hope, Hope’s boyfriend, Lupo, and Todd are all getting high, while Leah watches television alone. A few nights before, she’d been at this house for a party and she’d taken Ecstasy for the first time. The experience frightened her and left her off-balance.

She’s at a crossroad. Part of her wants to be with her boyfriend, whatever that might entail; the other part knows where she’s headed is wrong. She wants to be independent, but she’s afraid of the repercussions. She doesn’t want to lose all the good things she has in her life and she doesn’t want to be condemned.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

On their way home from the workshop, Leah said, “I’m impressed, Ma.”

They were stopped at an intersection, waiting for the light to change. Zoe looked at her daughter and smiled. “Thank you, honey. That’s sweet.” This is my daughter, she thought. This is my Leah.

“I mean it.” Leah turned the radio up. “You’re great with them.”

Why in the world were they constantly fighting? Getting along required only this: mutual respect.

The car behind them honked. The light had turned. Startled, Zoe stepped too heavily on the gas. The car jerked into the intersection.

Leah grabbed the handhold above her door, letting out a yelp.

“Sorry,” Zoe said sheepishly. “Think there’s a Success Skills workshop for driving?”

“Driver’s Ed,” Leah said, giggling. When they finally stopped laughing, she said, “Can I ask you something, Mom?”

“Certainly, sweetheart. Anything.”

“What made you do it? The seminars, I mean.”

“Tough question.” She’d been unhappy. No, unhappy was the wrong word. Frustrated. Discontented, maybe. “Something,” Zoe said quietly, “was missing.” She signaled their turn onto Main Street. Don’t get her wrong: she loved her family. She squeezed Leah’s forearm. Most days, she enjoyed her job. “How can I explain it?” She wanted to make a difference. “I thought if I could help people make important changes in their lives, I’d be doing something worthwhile.”

“Was it hard?” Leah reminded her of the long hours she’d spent developing, organizing, and marketing her workshops. She reminded Zoe of her so-called friends and colleagues, who’d warned her that in a tiny suburb like theirs she’d never attract enough attendees to make the venture worthwhile, who’d insisted that she was wasting her time. “Don’t you get tired? Do you ever think about quitting?”

“Sure,” Zoe admitted. “Sometimes. Then I think about the women I’m helping and I get excited again.” She told Leah about the cards and letters she received after the workshops, thanking her, telling her—she laughed—she was an angel. “The confidence I see in their eyes at the end of the day. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

After that, Leah grew quiet.

They passed a cornfield, the harvested stalks lying in the furrows, to be shredded for compost. Soon the fields gave way to forest.

Leah yawned. Within minutes, she was asleep.

Zoe turned off the radio and plugged a CD into the changer. The Liszt piano solos had been a gift from a student. “You’ll like the freethinking music,” the woman had said, and she had been right.

Zoe stroked Leah’s temples, pushing the hair out of her daughter’s eyes. Zoe felt sick about their blowout yesterday. The business with this Todd was her fault as much as Leah’s. If she’d paid closer attention to her daughter, instead of allowing herself to be driven by the demands of work, Leah would not have looked for affirmation from a person like Corbett. That’s all in the past, Zoe vowed. From now on, she planned to be available for her children. She’d rearrange her patient schedule so that she was there when Justine came home from school. She’d pick up Leah after practice; she’d attend every game. She would set aside at least four hours of individual, quality time, per week, for each of the girls. She’d pack healthy, appetizing lunches. Bake cookies. Sew Halloween outfits. She’d be the perfect mother. Better than perfect, she thought, and brought herself up short. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s take this one step at a time.

On Old Orchard Road, a mile from home, Leah opened her eyes, yawning. “I was having this crazy dream,” she said, yawning again.

“What were you dreaming about?”

Leah rubbed her eyes. “I can’t remember. What’s this music?”

“Liszt. Hungarian Rhapsodies. A student gave it to me. Like it?”

“It’s cool,” Leah said, fingering her belly ring. “Kind of—wild.”

“It’s gypsy music.” Zoe eyed the ring. “Did it hurt? Getting pierced?”

“Not too much. You still mad?”

Zoe squeezed Leah’s thigh. “No, sweets. But I wish you’d talked to me first.”

“You weren’t home,” Leah said, a hint of accusation in her tone.

“Sorry. I’d like to have been there for you. That’s all I meant.”

“Dad was pissed.” Leah scraped her thumbnail, chipping the garish blue polish.

Zoe remembered. Will had been angry with her, too. In the Tyler household, by order of both parents, belly rings were forbidden. If you’d stay on top of things, she might not have done this, he’d charged, after the girls had gone to bed. “So it’s my fault?” Zoe shot back. “Like you’re ever around?” The argument ended in a stalemate. “Dad doesn’t mean to be so hard on you, honey. He just worries.”

Slouching, Leah slid her hands under her thighs. “He doesn’t need to.” She wasn’t a baby.

“I know, sweetie.” Zoe signaled their turn onto Lily Farm Road. “It’s just, it’s scary being a parent. The decisions you make now—”

“Will affect the rest of my life. God, Mom. Can’t you say something different for once?”

“We’re your parents, sweetie. It’s our job to provide guidance.”

Leah bolted upright. “You are such a hypocrite. All day long you tell those women to make their own decisions. Then you tell your own daughter she’s supposed to listen to you?”

Zoe tightened her grip on the wheel. True, she advised her students to take control of their lives. But that was advice for adults. “You’ll be an adult soon enough, Leah. Then you can make all your own decisions. For now—”

“I’m an adult already.”

“You’re sixteen, honey. I know you feel like an adult—”

“Well, guess what, Mom?“ Leah shifted aggressively toward her door. “In November, I’ll be seventeen. You’ll have no say over me then.”

Zoe’s jaw clenched. A therapist, she was well aware of the state law governing the legal age of adulthood. “Until you’re a responsible adult—living on your own—your father and I make the rules.”

“So I’m irresponsible now?”

Zoe caught herself, before she went on a rant about Corbett. She felt closer to Leah today than she’d felt in ages. She refused to end the day with a fight. She reached for Leah’s arm. “Honey, listen. All I said is—”

Leah jerked away. “You said I’m a baby.”

Patience, Zoe told herself. Take a breath. She eased the Volvo alongside the mailbox, pulled out the mail and set it on the console, then turned into their driveway. “Honey,” she said, forcing a smile, “think about it. How would you feel if your daughter came in at three—”

“Oh my God,” Leah spat. “That’s why you were so big on me coming.” She scooped her team jacket from the floor. “So you could get me alone. Try to get me to dump him. I hate to break it to you, Mom. You wasted your time. It’s up to me who I go out with.”

“Leah, please.” Zoe stopped at the foot of the drive and pressed the button to lift the garage door. Leah’s dollhouse sat on the metal shelf at the back of the garage. When Leah was six, Zoe and Will had bought two houses, one for each of the girls, at a yard sale. At night, after the kids had gone to bed, they’d decorated the houses, painting and papering the walls. She’d cut squares from scatter rugs to carpet the floors, sewed tiny Cape Cod curtains for the miniature windows. Until last summer, Leah had kept the dollhouse on a table next to her bed. One day, she’d decided that she was too old for a dollhouse, and carried it down here. Leah wasn’t a baby. Zoe knew that. She wanted to protect her daughter; keep her safe. “I didn’t say a word about your boyfriend.”

“Right, so lie to me now.”

“Well, honey, admit it, he’s not exactly a person any parent—”

Leah clapped her hands over her ears.

“—wants to see their child—”

“La, la, la, la, la,” Leah sang.

“Listen to me.” Zoe pried her daughter’s hands away from her head. “He’s not good for you, honey. He’ll hurt you—”

“La, la, la, la, la,” Leah trilled, her voice drowning Zoe’s.

“Damn it, Leah. He used to be a roadie. This is not a good guy.”

“I don’t need this.” Leah flipped the lock on her door.

Zoe caught Leah’s wrist. “The kid sells drugs, for God’s sake.”

“You tricked me,” Leah spat. “I’m done with you,” she shouted, wrenching free. “I’m never going with you again. Anywhere. Ever.”

“No problem,” Zoe spat back. She was sorry she’d talked the little brat into coming. Big mistake. She should have known this would happen. “Believe me, I have no intention of asking again.”

“I hate you,” Leah cried. “I hate you. I’m not pretending I don’t anymore.”

Leah slammed the door, and went hurtling into the house.

The histrionic gypsy music rang in Zoe’s ears. She slapped the dash, her fingers fumbling with the dial, and cut the music off.

She’d lost her cool, said all the wrong things. Leah was spewing words, trying to hurt Zoe as much as Zoe had hurt her. Leah wanted reassurance. She wanted to be told she was capable and smart. She wanted to know that Zoe was proud of her, that she trusted her to make her own decisions. Zoe had let her down. She’d seen the ache in her daughter’s eyes, the disappointment. Maybe this was what people meant by the term “growing pains,” not the pain children experienced in their joints as their limbs grew, but the ache they felt in their hearts.

Zoe stared at the discarded playthings in their garage, Leah’s dollhouse, her tricycle, her wooden blocks dissolving in a watery blur. If only you knew how hard it is to watch you stumble, to see you in pain. Pull yourself together, Zoe told herself. Don’t let your failures defeat you. Yet here she was, her failures an anchor, sucking her under the sea.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Terri.  We wish you much success!

Thank you so very much for having me. I appreciate your kindness and I’m grateful for this opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers. Readers, thank you so very much for giving me the invaluable gift of your time.

Giveaways, Contests & Prizes!

Join Terri at Pump Up Your Book’s 1st Annual Holiday Extravaganza Chat Party on December 16, 2011 on Facebook!  After the chat, Terri will be giving away a $25 gift certificate at Pump Up Your Book’s Holiday Extravaganza Party Page.  Click here for details!

 

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